How a Snow Globe Triggered an Identity Crisis
I visited my partner’s family for the first time in Texas. I’ve never been to Houston let alone Corpus Christi or Aransas Pass. I grew up in big cities and have spent most of my adult life in San Francisco. My partner told me that I might be the only Asian person.
“That’s fine,” I said dismissively.
“They might ask you a lot of questions.”
“Okay, I guess I’ll start reading up on my Asian history.” I laugh it off as my go-to defense mechanism.
Where do you even start? I started googling Asian history. The results that come up are too broad. I tried Chinese history to narrow it down. Do they expect me to explain all of Chinese history in a “What Asian are you?” elevator pitch? I spent a good few hours learning all the dynasties and then just started tearing up.
I don’t relate to this at all.
Let me clarify. I was born in Vancouver, grew up in Hong Kong, and am now living in San Francisco. Our family left Vancouver and moved to Hong Kong. I was already speaking English fluently and Cantonese was my second language. I only spoke Cantonese to family, in restaurants, and every time I saw my hair guy. I could communicate on an elementary level but I could not read or write fluently. Moving to Hong Kong was a culture shock. Even though I looked like everyone else, I didn’t belong. I couldn’t communicate. I didn’t understand the local culture. The local kids made fun of me for not knowing my people’s language. I couldn’t communicate with my grandparents. I wasn’t Chinese enough.
Fast forward to college when I moved to San Francisco to pursue higher education. Sure I spoke English, but I didn’t understand a lot of what the culture is especially in college life. I didn’t know there were handshakes that you do when you meet someone. I had to learn that “How are you?” was just a greeting and it never needed an answer. I remember the first few weeks of freshman year and telling people I was from Hong Kong.
“Oh? Do you use cell phones there?”
“Do you use rickshaws to travel around?”
“Is that in Japan?”
Out of my politeness, I would just answer yes or no and then just hide in all my shame and embarrassment. I then started telling people that I was from Canada as I felt that would it would be less embarrassing.
“Do you put maple syrup on everything?”
“Do you really say ‘about’ and ‘eh?’”
“Do you have a pet beaver?”
I’ve gotten so used to these questions that I know exactly how to answer them. I would make myself the joke and act dumb. I changed the way I spoke and acted so I could fit in. I became the funny and weird international kid.
Fast forward a few more years, I started building my career as a designer. There were countless times where I would get asked “Where are you from?” and I would just answer that it’s complicated. It felt easier to just dodge that question altogether. It felt exhausting to constantly have to re-explain my shame and guilt. Suppress it. That’s all I knew how to do.
Building my life in San Franciso wasn't easy. Every time I read the news, I’m always reminded that I’m an outsider. No matter how many connections I’ve made, no matter how many breakups I’ve been through, I’m just here in this country because of my job. I couldn’t do all the things I wanted to do because of my situation. I realized how easily it can be taken away from me by some regulation or law. I wasn’t American enough.
I’ve been living in San Francisco for a while now, but when co-workers and friends travel to Vancouver, they would ask me where the best bar is or where my favorite dim sum restaurant is. I literally have no clue. I only spent my childhood in Vancouver. I’ve also met a few people who were also from Vancouver and I immediately get judged by my lack of knowledge of Vancouver. “Are you really from Vancouver?” Suddenly the same feeling washes over me. I wasn’t Canadian enough.
We drove to my partner’s aunt’s place to celebrate Christmas Eve in Corpus Christi. It was my first time meeting everyone and the first time my partner brought someone home for the holidays. Everyone was super excited to meet me and incredibly welcoming. It was almost midnight and we finally got to exchange gifts. Socks, gift cards, plaid shirts... ah, there it is.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” One of my partner’s aunts asked across the room.
“Yeah. It’s a snow globe.”
“Shake it! It says ‘Love comes in every color’ in rainbow.”
Time stopped. It felt like everyone was staring at me waiting for a response. All I needed to say was thank you but those two words were buried under everything that I’ve suppressed. Suddenly I had an overwhelming existential crisis of being caught that I wasn’t gay enough. What does that even mean? My partner looked at me and smiled. I exhaled the breath I didn’t know I was holding and said:
“Thank you! I love it.”
Oh, how I wanted to shake the moment away. Like how I wanted to shake all the snow globes of my identity away. I’ve been staring into this stereotypical version of myself of what I’m supposed to be from the outside the glass dome. I’m suddenly drowning in the empty void of not knowing who I am.
Who am I?
I feel like I’ve been so transient my whole life. Chasing expectations that only exist in memories past. When I finally get there, I feel like the last puzzle piece that wasn’t supposed to complete the puzzle in the first place. I’m constantly trying to balance assimilating into the new while preserving the old.
“What Asian are you?”
I was suddenly slapped into existence with this question. I was ready for this question. I googled this.
“What’s the difference between Korean and Chinese? We love BTS.”
Thank BTS for BTS. If BTS didn’t make it into this small town, then I would have been the only Asian person defending who I am at this very moment. How do I answer this without getting frustrated and becoming the angry Asian man? Do I use a Chinese proverb? Millions of questions fire in my head.
“Chinese people are from China. Korean people are from Korea. They are all countries in Asia. They are all ethnicities within Asia.”
I look over at my partner and he smiles and finishes.
“It’s like how there are different ethnicities within the Latinx community.”
I added a few more educational notes and that was it. I was going back and forth in my head and was so worried I was ill-prepared that I didn’t realize my partner was prepared for this too. As much as I was educating myself on Chinese history, he was preparing himself to be my ally.
I had some time to reflect on the four-hour flight back to San Francisco. Who I am isn’t what society tells me to be. I become who I am by my lived experiences and that’s okay. My self-worth isn’t tied to anything but me. It’s called self-worth for a reason — it has to come from me. I’m inviting people into my life by sharing a part of me and it’s up to them if they accept it or not. They don’t have that power over me. As we get home, we start unpacking and we come upon the rainbow, glitter-covered snow globe.
“Where should we put this?” My partner asks.
“Near the door,” I said confidently. “So it can remind us of who we are and that our self-worth comes from within. Shake that damn snow globe! It’s beautiful!”